Merely Theatre, Henry V, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, 18 March, 2pm and 7.45pm. Now Touring.
This was an unexpected joy. Merely Theatre is on to something completely new, a radically different, totally theatrical approach which isn't just a clever interpretation of the familiar; it's a clarification of what seems to have been there all the time but you haven't been able to put your finger on before now. And it's difficult to tell just how they have done it.
In Henry V, the cast, who play multiple roles, employ football shirts to distinguish the English from the French. Apart from doing a physical warmup on stage before the play starts, they don't really work this metaphor during the performance, but the comparison seems apt in discussing what they are trying to do, and what they achieved.
Football, according to those who know, is a very simple game. When you've got the ball, try and score; when you haven't got the ball, get the ball. This year, in England, a team has emerged, Leicester, who seem to do these simple things better than anyone else.
Merely Theatre have a similar approach - do something simple well, and in their case, the simple thing is: connect to the audience. This they do better than anyone else I've ever seen.
What sets this company apart? Many theatre companies don't have sets, perform in everyday clothes, speak directly to the audience, are gender blind. This can't be the first time Henry the Fifth has been played by a woman.
Perhaps there is another similarity to football.
In the programme there's an interview with the director, Scott Ellis, where he talks about the company's approach. Every role in the two plays in repertoire is rehearsed by both a man and a woman. The actors are equal, one isn't the understudy of the other. The cast of five for each performance is then drawn from the full company of ten, in various combinations, without referencing gender. The two plays I saw had the same cast, a combination of four women and one man.
Similarly a football team has in its squad more than one player per position, and the player on the bench is always pushing to be in the team.
However, once you make it into the team, the thing is to work together. It's a balancing act, competition keeps the players sharp, but too much competition and they don't play as a team.
In the acting world, usually, once you get the part, collaboration is the name of the game. Competition is out the window. The role is yours and yours alone. And actors never, ever, tell each other what to do.
Introducing the kind of competition, expected in football, to the rehearsal process in theatre is a radical step. On the evidence of these two plays, it really works.
Leicester again - a team on such a fairy tale run emerges so rarely that the pundits are talking of a once in a lifetime experience. There are many elements, difficult to achieve, feeding into such crystal clear simplicity.
In theatrical terms, the doubling of each role seems to have the effect of providing feedback in the rehearsal process for what each actor is doing; a ruthless winnowing of what doesn't work and a certainty about what does. The actors are able to watch themselves as it were, to see what connects and what is just confusing, what is clear and what isn't. In rehearsal the actors are having to connect, as they are in performance.
The result: you see these plays as if for the first time, stripped of the accretion of centuries of interpretation, of trying to communicate how the character is 'feeling', of any genuflection toward the cult of Shakespeare, of any sense that this is somehow culturally important in a way that only those who know can understand.
I can't praise the largeness, the theatricality, of the performances enough.
Henry V: the first reaction, when the play begins, is to think 'what have they done? how can it be so clear? what am I missing? this can't be right? is this really Shakespeare?' Certainly, the moments which are about a character speaking directly to the audience seemed to work best; Mistress Quickly's recollection of Falstaff's last moments, the boy deciding to seek a new master. Was this just individual actors doing their set pieces?
A Midsummer Night's Dream: it all comes together. The success of this production is impossible to miss, the approach really works. And the audience appreciated it - the cast had their curtain call, the house lights had come up, the stage lights gone down but we all kept applauding. The actors seemed surprised and bashful in returning to the stage, but they shouldn't have been.
This project is by no means near its full potential. Where to next? Leicester is heading to the Champions League. Where is Merely Theatre headed? I look forward very much to finding out.